Parties in DMWW Lawsuit Disagree as to Meaning of Iowa Court Opinion

February 14, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

In a filing last evening, the parties to the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit—the Board of Water Works Trustees and the drainage districts—again showed they are miles apart in their interpretation of the law. This time, the difference is in how they interpret the answers by the Iowa Supreme Court to four certified questions posed to the Court by the federal district court hearing the case.

As we’ve detailed, the January 27, 2017, opinion from the Iowa Supreme Court closed the door to DMWW’s common law claims for money damages. The Court ruled that drainage districts, because of their limited powers and duties, can only be sued in mandamus to perform specific actions authorized by the Iowa Code. After receiving the Iowa Supreme Court opinion, Judge Strand, the federal judge assigned to hear this case in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, directed the parties to file a joint status report detailing their positions as to the status of the case. In other words, what impact does the Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion have on the case moving forward? Not surprisingly, the parties' joint status report reveals big differences as to the parties’ positions.

Counts III-X

DMWW and the districts agree that the January 27, 2017, opinion prevents the utility from collecting money damages for the tort claims. DMWW argues, however, that the federal court must still determine whether a viable claim for a federal constitutional violation remains. The districts, on the other hand, argue that the Iowa Court’s decision disposed of all claims in Counts III-X, including those asserting a federal constitutional violation.

Counts I and II

Of course, the major disagreement between the parties centers on the Clean Water Act claims. DMWW argues that the Iowa Supreme Court decision has no impact on these claims because the certified questions did not address Claims I and II. DMWW argues that federal environmental law preempts state law and that the districts already comply with various federal laws such as federal dredge and fill and wetland mitigation regulations. DMWW states that drainage districts have the power to do what is necessary to keep draining. If that includes obtaining a permit, Iowa law cannot foreclose that duty.

For their part, the districts agree that the Iowa Court's answers to the certified questions did not decide Counts I and II. They argue, however, that the answers determined Iowa law, which is binding on the federal court in making its ruling. They specifically allege that there is no redressability for DMWW’s Clean Water Act claims against the districts because the districts do not have the power under Iowa law to perform the tasks requested by DMWW. Redressability (or the ability of the court to order the relief demanded against the party being sued), the districts argue, is a matter of state law.

Trial Date

Both parties agree that a June 26, 2017, trial date (if necessary) remains feasible. They also agree that “time and resources are limited,” and they ask the court to provide an expected timing of rulings.

We should expect to hear from the federal court soon. We’ll keep you posted!

*Additional filings and articles regarding this lawsuit can be accessed here.